Honored May 6, 2017
Mike McHale was installed in 2000 as a member of the North East Region’s Comhaltas Hall of Fame. So his induction this year into the Mid-Atlantic Hall is a rare double honor. It’s an honor well merited, however, as Mike’s musical influence has extended far beyond his Hudson Valley home. Mike’s music making in Boston and New York City in the early 1960’s, in East Durham when that Catskills village was at its height as an Irish resort, and for the past two decades at the annual Catskills Irish Arts Week have made him a familiar and respected performer, teacher and friend to Irish musicians all over the east coast and beyond.
In a recent interview for Irish Music Magazine with Catskills Irish Arts Week Artistic Director Reidín O’Flynn, Mike talked about his early life in Ireland:
I was born in Tulsk, a small village in County Roscommon into a family of seven boys and one girl. My father was the local school teacher. We lived at the school residence. It was half of the school building. I went out my door from the kitchen in the morning round the corner and in the other door to the school, so I had no fun.
My father Bill McHale played the accordion and that’s where I started getting my music from. Our house was a kind of a music house; especially in the wintertime they’d have the house parties. They always wanted to have them in our house because there was a board floor in the kitchen, so I knew a lot of old-time musicians there and learnt a lot of tunes.
Mike got his first tin whistle as a present on his sixth birthday and graduated to the concert flute five years later. He co-founded the Killina Ceili Band and in 1958 won the Connaught flute championship and the All-Ireland tin whistle championship. As with so many young Irish men and women, however, the emigrant boat awaited:
I had an aunt in Boston who wanted to take me back with her years before but they wouldn’t let me go. She never forgot about it. She sent the papers and my mother said to me ‘You can’t say no now.’ I had no intention of going to America and I tell ‘em now they deported me! In 1959 I came anyway. Ah, ‘twas good. There was nothing at home at that time.
In Boston, Mike played with Galway accordion great Seán McGlynn and Kerry fiddle legend Paddy Cronin in the State Ballroom Ceili Band. Ballroom impresario Bill Fuller arranged a weekend gig in Chicago, where Mike played with Joe and Séamus Cooley and Johnny Cronin. A weekend trip to New York City with McGlynn resulted in a session with Paddy Reynolds, Andy McGann, Paddy O’Brien, Jack Coen, Andy Conroy, Joe Madden and Joe Mills. “That broke me into the New York music,” Mike recalled.
In 1965, Mike followed Seán McGlynn to New York City, where he met his wife Kathleen on a blind date at a St. Patrick’s Dance. He and his Clare-born dance partner got married that fall. In 1967, they moved to East Durham, where Mike worked at Mullin’s Mountain Spring (now the Blackthorne).
There was lots of good music there then especially in the summertime. Any weekend you could have the likes of Andy McGann, Paddy Reynolds, Bobby Gardiner, Billy McComiskey, and Jimmy and Ralph Kelly.
Demand for traditional Irish music was on the wane, however. Mike stopped playing the flute and relocated to Catskill, New York in 1983. He never gave up the tin whistle, though, and began a musical renaissance in 1990 when he was recruited to play at a weekend Irish festival in Schoharie County. At the festival, Galway flute player Jack Coen encouraged Mike to play the flute again. Mike duly ordered a new wooden flute and worked himself back into musical shape. Good enough shape to take second place at the 1996 All-Ireland Fleadh for slow airs on both tin whistle and flute. Trips to the recording studio ensued and in 2000 Mike issued an acclaimed CD The Schoolmaster’s House.
When the Schoharie Irish festival funding dried up after three years, Mike encouraged folklorist Janis Benincasa to cross the mountains to Greene County and work with the Michael J. Quill Irish Cultural and Sports Centre in East Durham. The result of this suggestion was the Catskills Irish Arts Week, still going strong (like Mike McHale) some 23 years later.